Lions on the runway, elephants destroying fences, and hitting storks in flight at 120 km/h, there’s hardly a dull day in the air for Botswana’s bush pilots. That’s one of the reasons why Botswana is such a popular place for young pilots looking to clock up their flight hours. Another reason is that there are more flights out of Maun each day than many international airports, with about 80 planes coming in and out a day.
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Flying low over animals and patchworks of green and blue, or soaring high above one of Africa’s untouched wildernesses, Botswana’s bush pilots enjoy a unique vocation. The country’s tourism industry is built on the backs of these aviators and while flying above the Okavango Delta is a once-in-a-lifetime experience for many, for them it’s just another day in the office.
On our recent trip to Botswana we caught up with Gellie Burger, a young pilot from South Africa, to find out about the life of a bush pilot.
What is your average day like?
Our first flight is at 8 am, so we need to be at the office at 6:40 am. You come in, do your planning, and you get to your aircraft an hour before you’re due to fly to do your checks. In the busy season we should have about seven to eight stops and fly an average of three to four hours a day. That’s considered a busy day. Not often, but sometimes we’ll fly four to five hours a day. And then afterwards, we do post-flight planning. Generally speaking, most of the companies employ the pilots for 11 months on and one month off.
What animals do you normally see from the plane?
Most common is the elephant population, which is incredible. Sometimes I see them inside the buffalo fence from Maun, let’s say six miles out from the northeast. They have no respect for the buffalo fence whatsoever. Secondly, we see a lot of giraffe, and the hippo population is unbelievable, which is great because they are the highway-makers, you can see where they walk and they’re a vital part of the ecosystem. We see a lot of impala, lechwe, and Cape buffalo, especially going through the Stanley area. There is a high variety of birds, such as storks, hornbills, Kori bustards. And I saw two rhinos three weeks ago on Chief’s Island.
Other than general wildlife, what interesting things have you seen from the plane?
The other day there was a male and female lion mating on the runway. I couldn’t get them off the runway. So I asked the guys on the ground to try chase them away but the lions showed signs of aggression and seemed as though they could charge the car. So the only thing I could do was fly low proximity over the runway to try and get them to move. But they stuck around all day. It shows you how incredible it is to fly here, you never know what you will see.
Have you had any other incredible sightings?
Well, every day you get in close proximity to birds which is another story all on its own. The stork population is very concentrated around Maun and sometimes the pilots hit them. You sometimes see a bird go past your wing at 120 km an hour, and that bird, if it hits you, can do serious damage. So, things like that are tricky. The pilots see lions and elephants every day so we tend to become complacent and stop sharing stories like that because it happens so often.
What’s your favourite part of your job?
My favourite part is firstly the people. I think because you work hard every day you get quite attached. It’s like a family away from home. Secondly, it’s the moment you see something like the lions on the runway, you realise this is actually real and one of the last untouched gems in the world. You won’t see that type of animal behaviour anywhere else because there’s no restrictions due to border fences here. In a sense, Botswana’s blessed in that way. So in terms of that, it’s incredible to see that animals can still freely roam in their natural environment in Botswana and that for me is a very important part of this, seeing how happy they are and how well looked after they are.
Where do the pilots come from?
Funnily enough, we were talking about this two weeks ago. The trend has changed. If you came here four years ago, you’d see 40 – 50 pilots competing for the same job. I’m talking Europeans, South Africans, Australians, Americans, you name it they were here. That’s because it’s a very good hour-building programme for pilots. And that’s essentially what a pilot’s life is about, building experience. So they came here looking for a job and people were competing like it was gold.
Things are different now, though. There are two flight schools in Gaborone which are now producing local students. I think the government realised that if they had their own flight school they wouldn’t have to hire foreigners any more. So sadly enough, you don’t see a lot of foreigners here anymore.
How did you become a pilot?
My dream started when I was very young. My dad was a recreational pilot on weekends. So I had exposure through that, and I started to love aviation from when I was around eight or nine years old. I started flying when I was about thirteen and I got my first license at 15. You are a student pilot at 15 and you get your first license at 16 but you can only carry one passenger, it’s called a light sport license which is basically like a recreational pilot’s license. You can’t get any money for it but it’s baby steps, this is how the industry works. It was always a passion of mine. I mean you’d never get a pilot at a dinner not talking about flying. It’s a passion and a way of life.
And plans for the future?
I’m training to become an airline pilot, that’s what I was born and bred to do. I’m here now to build hands-on flying experience and the majority of the fliers will say the same thing. You have to do a flight that your passengers take for granted and make it seem effortless. That on its own is an art. A lot of people say it’s like driving a car. Yes, it is, but it’s still something that can kill you in the end if you don’t know what you’re doing. So I’m here to get hands-on flying experience, and this will be the foundation of my career towards the airliner.